Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Decision Before Dawn

This review is of a film that I first viewed as a young lad on "NBC Saturday Night at the Movies" back in the sixties. It didn't make much of a ripple when it was released in 1950 and afterward was relegated to late show purgatory, but unlike most films dealing with war it goes deeper into the emotions and morality of people caught up in the conflict. It definitely made an impression on me. I could never locate this movie on VHS, and was bowled over to learn it was recently released on DVD. The film is "Decision Before Dawn". It stars Richard Basehart, Oskar Werner, and
Hildegard Knef.

The story takes place in the closing days of World War II. The US Army has organized a clandestine unit of turncoat German POWs to go back into Germany, and gather intelligence.  Richard Basehart plays a US Army Lieutenant in charge of one such team. Oskar Werner plays a German POW who volunteers after witnessing the murder of a fellow POW who was declared a defeatist. 
This film is loosely based on a factual WWII operation -Jedburgh - a little known chapter of the war where anti-Nazi German POWs were used to assist in the defeat of Nazi Germany. The men enlisted to participate were never quite trusted by their American controllers and if caught, their fate would be a foregone conclusion. A shadow world of the damned. Essentially, this film seeks to explore the meaning of the word "traitor." Is a soldier who risks his life to aid the enemy with the ultimate hope of possibly helping to alleviate the suffering of his countrymen and shorten the war commiting a traitorous act? One can only surmise that the definition is extremely vague and open to individual interpretation.

The team is parachuted into Germany and split up. Werner is assigned to get intelligence on the troop strength of units facing the US Army across the Rhine River. While waiting in line to catch a bus, a wehrmacht motorcycle courier offers him a ride and a place to stay overnight. After some conversation the courier gets suspicious and informs the Gestapo about Werner. From then on Werner is a marked man. Suspecting he is being followed, he confronts and kills the man assigned to keep track of him. After almost being caught by the gendarme it's a race to the location where the team was supposed to meet and then try escape back across the river to the Allies. I won't go into much detail about the ending in the event some readers would be motivated to see this film, but I can say that the ending is much like the rest of the movie, in a word - grim.  

What makes this film so gripping and mesmerizing is that it was filmed shortly after WWII in Germany. The cities were still devastated and it has the look as if it is being filmed real time. Of course, it's in black and white. The mood is frenetic - air raids, artillery bombardment, fire engine bells clanging, sirens blaring, and refugees on the move. It is one of the few war films in existence that conveys the true feeling of a country turned upside down and the ordinary people trying to make sense out of it all. Also making one of his early cinematic appearances (15 seconds) is Klaus Kinski. More on Kinski at a later date I realize my taste in cinema is markedly different from most people, but I've learned that like most things in life if approached with an open mind, you can reap huge benefits and maybe start exploring outside your comfort zone.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Ballad of a Soldier

Early in my Naval career  I was stationed at San Diego, which we affectionately called “Sand Dog”, and there were two things that preoccupied a sailors liberty time…getting drunk and trying to get laid. Of course, the former was quite easy to do (if you were over 21); the latter took some effort, at least for me. Yes, I remember those sojourns to Chula Juana (Chula Vista), Nasty City (National City), the real Nasty City (Tijuana) and downtown Sand Dog playing my part as the gullible swabbie caught in the cross hairs of the scam artists lying in wait to bag their prey on Broadway Ave.
Eventually I grew bored with this routine and wandered northward to La Jolla, which was refreshingly civilized. There I discovered art house cinema. In a previous post, I wrote about the origins of my passion for classic and foreign movies.  In La Jolla this began anew. The theatre shared residency with a book store which was managed by an arrogant, smug, longhair who was more interested in reading his inventory than attending to customer inquiries. The theatre was a small affair. They obviously weren’t in the business to make big bucks, but showcase foreign, avant-garde, and classic cinema. This is the place where I became enamored with film noir and other classic gems like “Citizen Kane”, “Night of the Hunter”, “On the Waterfront”, and “The Devil and Daniel Webster”. I must say that whoever had the job of planning the show schedule had good taste. Could it have been that snobbish proto-hippie?

It was at this theater that I first viewed the film “Ballad of a Soldier”. This is a Soviet import that first appeared in the US at the San Francisco Film Festival in 1961. What is interesting about the film is that while it is about a soldier and takes place during the German invasion of the Soviet Union, only the first ten minutes or so show combat. The remainder is primarily about the people behind the lines and how the war has affected their lives.

Ayosha scores a four day pass home for knocking out two German tanks at the front. His sojourn back to his farm is the film. He selflessly helps people in various situations as travels east….a soldier who had displayed courage in the face of the enemy and lost a leg in battle, but cannot face his wife because of his infirmary.  A soldier heading for the front asks him to deliver some soap to his wife on his way home, only to find when he locates the woman finds her with another man.

Perhaps the most momentous and poignant event to happen to him is when he stows away aboard a train and discovers a young girl also hiding in the same freight car. At first she suspects the worst from him and his hostile but she soon realizes since they are both stowaways they have to work together to survive the trip.  They go through numerous incidents together and their initial wariness turns into infatuation until the time comes when they must go their separate ways and part.

Like the motion of a clock’s pendulum, Ayoshas leave slowly ticks away. By the time he reaches his home to see his mother, he has only a few hours to spend with her before he has to go back to the war. Make no mistake, Ballad of a Soldier is a film about war but not about the meat grinder of the front lines but rather about the human condition of the home front.